The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Saturday, March 23, 2013


Posted By: Nick Jackson
Posted: March 16, 2012
Because I deal with a lot of ambassadorial despatches from The National Archives as part of my work at Adam Matthew, I know that more of them than one might think run to personal reflections rather than anything that might normally be considered diplomatically useful. One such is contained in file FCO 37/1535, baldly (and inaccurately) labelled ‘Coronation of King Wangchuck of Bhutan’ amongst the usual panoply of ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ stickers, closure notices and scrawls from Foreign Office staff indicating that the file has passed through their hands. Some entertaining examples of diplomats’ displeasure at what they found on their postings were collected, from files of despatches like this held by TNA, in Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson’s recent book Parting Shots; but the main document in this file, a charming account of the coronation in 1974 of the 18-year-old King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (read, and enjoyed, by the Queen, according to the accompanying correspondence), is very much at the opposite end of things.
File FCO 37/1535, cover
Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission
The coronation was the first state event in Bhutan to which foreign dignitaries had been invited; Britain was represented by the high commissioner to India, Sir Michael Walker, the Bhutanese having demurred from inviting the Queen or a member of the royal family because, it seems, of their concerns about offering accommodation of an appropriate standard. Sir Michael, however, was entranced by what was laid on for the King’s guests. The catering had, apparently, been entrusted to an Indian hotel chain, all the food and drink being flown in by helicopter. The result was ‘a display the Savoy would have found it hard to match’ of ‘foods and wines of such quality that can seldom before have been served in the sub-Continent’ (an odd statement to make, when one considers the existence of British India and that George V visited Delhi as King-Emperor in 1911). He was particularly impressed with the habit of drinks-bearers, all local schoolboys drilled for a month in the task, of following guests around wherever they went.
Flag of Bhutan
The ceremony itself embodied ‘a medieval world of pomp, pageantry, kaleidoscopic colour and chivalry’. Again, one might have thought that a British coronation would offer adequate quantities of these things, though presumably not yak-butter tea, the giving of ceremonial scarves and a rumour (deftly quashed by Sir Michael) of a CIA-sponsored assassination attempt through the medium of an archery competition. Perhaps the London equivalent, however, would not have had quite the personal touch that the Bhutanese exhibited. All the foreign guests were presented with outfits of national costume sent by the King; the wife of the Chinese chargé d’affaires was particularly pleased, Sir Michael felt, as she was thus permitted for a day to discard the ‘grey overalls’ she otherwise wore. I was most taken, though, by this encounter:
On two afternoons, with the encouragement of the King, the American Ambassador and I played truant from the latter part of the cultural events so as to get in some trout fishing in the fast flowing Wang Chu river […]. I was just putting up my rod beside the road when the Chogyal’s motor cavalcade came by. [The Chogyal was the King of Sikkim, shortly afterwards absorbed into India.] He at once stopped and, getting out, resplendent in his ceremonial robes, proceeded to give me very sound advice on the choice of flies. I had hardly got into the river when hearing a noise behind me I turned to find an attendant ready with the inevitable champagne.
Despatch 'The Enthronement of the Dragon King', page 1
Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission
Perhaps it’s just the phrase ‘motor cavalcade’, but I regret that this all happened eight years too late to find out what Evelyn Waugh might have made of it. Sir Michael, for his part, ends by saluting the achievement and good humour of the Bhutanese and the ‘extraordinarily happy and friendly’ nature of the whole experience. The King, incidentally, retired in 2006 in favour of his son, and is best known outside Bhutan for having developed the concept of ‘gross national happiness’ as a socioeconomic indicator. Sir Michael, I think, would have approved.
‘The Enthronement of the Dragon King’ (in FCO 37/1535) is amongst the materials included in the new collection Foreign Offices Files for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, 1972-1980,released by Adam Matthew Digital this month.

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